I wasn’t sure what it would look like, or how terrible it would be, but deep in my gut I felt something squirming. An awareness. A knowing. An intuition. I had a feeling that bad days were ahead.
I am fairly certain that my intuition that we were heading toward a humanitarian crisis wasn’t unusual. I know I am not unique in this regard. It’s connected to the recent uptick in the popularity of dystopian novels and films. It’s related to the fear and anxiety that caused this nation to elect a racist, misogynistic and xenophobic president — to latch onto his tendency to scapegoat and split the unity that formed our identity. I’ve sat in circles with other sisters many times, musing over what we might do once a time of trouble arrived.
But I never thought it would be like this, a global coronavirus pandemic. Yet here we are. The crisis has arrived, and it is serious and costly… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
It all started when a friend, who ministers in New York, texted me to say that someone in his parish was being tested for the coronavirus (or Covid-19) and everyone who attended liturgy with them could be quarantined. I was alarmed. I realized that the epidemic was no longer abstract and distant. I realized that the time to make decisions had arrived.
I muttered some prayers and then I went online and began reading the news. Updates from the WHO and CDC helped me understand how quickly the virus is spreading, how highly contagious it is, and that it had just been named a pandemic. I also read the recommendation that those with lung disease not venture out for any reason.
Lung disease. My heart sank as I realized I was one of those persons; I am asthmatic. And I live with a sister who is an octogenarian. I felt a responsibility to stay in. So, I told the sisters I live with that I wouldn’t be joining them at the Catholic Sister Week event that night and canceled plans. I hunkered down and settled into acceptance.
Since then, the impacts of this crisis are being felt by nearly everyone. Most of us will not be able to worship with our faith communities this weekend. Many people can’t receive the Blessed Sacrament at Holy Mass. (Catholic services have been canceled all over the country.) The words of Michael O. Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2007, come to mind: “Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate.”
Throughout the United States much has changed quickly. Many events, major and small, have been canceled. Classrooms are now virtual. There’s a shortage of supplies. A national emergency has been declared. Much has come to a standstill. And many people are feeling frantic, vulnerable and fearful. It’s a wild time we’re in.
Wild like the Lenten desert, like the land of desolation where Jesus went to pray and fast before he began his public ministry. (Mark 1:12-13)
We are called to accept the reality of the time we’re in and face unmet desires. We have arrived in the Lenten desert by way of a pandemic.
The Lenten desert is harsh and wild. Much feels unfamiliar and frightening; the sun burns, the water is scarce. You don’t know if you’ll have what you need, or if you will survive.
In the Lenten desert, we thirst for the Truth, for comfort, and peace. We crave it; we’re hungry. We starve for connection, for love, hope and joy. As we do, we can marvel at the mystery, at our shared humanity and common vulnerabilities. We are able to let go of what is beyond our control. We all need God.
In a pandemic and in this sacred season, we can let the silence and solitude speak to us; we can each listen deeply to God. We can pray. We can meditate. We can read Scripture and do spiritual reading. Once we turn inward, we could discover that the desert landscape is beautiful and full of life too.
In this pandemic and in this desert, we discover a sacredness in the slowing, an offering of time. Each of us are given an opportunity to steward the openings we’ve been given. We can notice what is a gift. We can delight in a time to deepen our bond with God.
Surprise, here’s that Lenten retreat you were dreaming about. Here’s that pause you were wanting when ashes were pressed into your forehead and you heard that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
As you pray through this Lenten pandemic, I invite you to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit deep in your heart. Remember that Jesus was ministered by angels in the desert; keep in mind that God is also caring for you in this sacred time.
As you open your heart and mind to love, to the challenge of trust and transformation, may you come to a greater awareness of how deeply loved you truly are. You are sacred. You are valued. You are not alone. You are a beautiful and beloved child of God.
Let’s remember that we’re made for community, that this is the Christian way. Let’s reach out to our friends and neighbors; let’s utilize technology for sacred relationships, for community building. Let’s pray together and help each other through our struggles. Let’s encourage one another and be the beacons of hope that others need to see.
Then, united in love and filled with God’s grace, we will all emerge again one day, more fully alive and in tune with the way of Jesus Christ. We’ll be stronger and healthier. We’ll be more grounded and clear headed. We’ll be able to serve with greater courage and love.
This is a time for renewal, preparation and restoration. This is a holy time.
Here are some offerings for you. Think of this list like finding a well bursting of life-giving water, strengthening you for your time in the desert:
The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The world that surrounds us is daunting,
too many voices speak truth
and prophetic words from false prophets
God cannot be both compassionate
and a defense through which morality props
up the unjust
But the most persuasive voices
can tailor the emperor’s clothes
to align with God’s will
or is it man’s?
So that the immigrant is still detained
the prisons overflow
race is divisive
the poor are criminalized
the natural world degraded
walls are built
And weapons are beat not into plowshares,
but into proclamations that they alone
can make us secure.
The drumbeat goes on
And then, in stillness
the God who is addressed in prayer
who is challenged and cursed and loved
Enter into discomfort, dispel rational thought
that has normalized hate, and do not tread on the surface, but abandon it for the deepfor it is therethat the truth will be uncoveredrevealing that all are created
in the image and likeness of Godall are made holy and sacred and just.
It is a profound truth,
if only because the voice that responds is feminine
as though all of the daughters and sisters and mothers
had preached a holy Gospel that for too long had gone unheard in the echo chambers of the ordained and the backroom channels of the elected and the boardroom coffers
of an ever-present greed
and the people would plead,
and the faithful would gather:
We must rise from dust and ashes to a sermon on the mount that was once proclaimed not mere allegory or callous refrain but a prophetic truth that has always been
that has always been until it wasn’t
because we had strayed so far from the road
that the Judean was left to rot and decay
and Lazarus awoke only to die again
and the fishermen did not walk on water
but capsized in the storm,
their bodies washed to shore
not as fishermen, not as disciples,
but as refugee children drowned
and the rich man walked through
the eye of the needle
and the mob picked up the pile of stones
and the loaves and fishes were hoarded away
and the other cheek was not turned to the side,
but instead a gun was drawn
and the bullets pierced those hands
that once held nails
And we wept.
For so long we wept and cried out:
My God, my God why have you forsaken me?
And in reply her voice dispelled any rumor or denial:
My child, my child it is you who have forsaken me.
For in that moment our truth had finally been revealed
For we cannot claim a compassionate God
if the God we choose is a placeholder
to uphold unjust views
or whose ears fall deaf to the cries of the poor
or who promotes a prosperity
that benefits a few and no more.
For we cannot claim a compassionate God
and proclaim the Gospel as the only truth
when that very same God is rejected by us
because he or she does not look like us
but rather the image that appears
reflected in our mirror is
the immigrant detained by us
the refugee excluded by us
the inmate who profits us
the detainee tortured by us
the gay man shamed by us
the child abused by us
the woman silenced by us
the poor forgotten by us
And all of it in my name.
So forgive us, we know not what we do.
Forgive us, even though we know
that it’s not quite true:
for we know exactly what we do.
Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, while an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois.He currently lives near Madison and is a stay-at-home dad to two creative and adventurous kids, and is an active member of the Catholic Worker community there.
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. — 2 Corinthians 12:9
Lent is a time I focus on my weaknesses. I don’t like feeling weak; I don’t think very many people do. Some truths I have come to understand are that God uses my weaknesses and my struggles to teach me, help me grow. He draws me closer.
Growing up, school was not easy for me. Because of Turner syndrome I was the short kid who looked a lot younger than her age, and I struggled to overcome a learning disability. I had a special education plan in school until 7th grade. Math and writing were subjects of great difficulty for me. Particularly in middle school, I remember sitting at the dining room table for hours with one of my parents (both teachers) who would attempt to help me with homework. Night after night I was frustrated (and I probably frustrated my parents too) as I attempted to complete assignments. I hated it, and I would get mad at my parents and at my teachers. Sometimes I would even get mad at God. I just wanted it to be easier.
Eventually I found things I was good at: music, history and reading. With the help of my parents and some hard work, even math and writing got easier. My junior year of high school, I experienced job shadowing at my father’s school with the special education teacher there. I remember having so much fun with the students in this self-contained class and found that I enjoyed helping them; I could relate to them. I didn’t feel out-of-place or like I had to be anybody I wasn’t as I did in my own school.
Around that same time I babysat for a family of four. I had to help the oldest girl with her homework, and I noticed she was having some of the same problems with multiplication that I did when I was her age. I immediately recognized the same frustration on her face that I had felt when I was learning multiplication. She had a hard time lining up the numbers. I had her turn the paper around so she could use the lines as columns. This was a trick my parents had taught me. It worked; she was able to do the problems after a few more examples. I wondered if she might have the same learning disability I had. When her mom came come home that night, I told her what I noticed. She said her daughter’s teacher wondered the same thing. Testing was done and a learning disability was diagnosed. The child was able to get some extra help. This was the first time I remember using my difficult experiences to help someone else. My weakness as a strength.
Those early experiences helped to shape my desire to become a special education teacher. I knew I loved working with kids, and I came to know I also had a special talent for teaching struggling students. One of my strengths as a teacher has been my ability to relate to my students’ difficulties. Not too long ago a student of mine (who has a learning disability) was frustrated with math. Sitting next to me he refused to do the work, telling me that algebra was pointless and that he didn’t need to learn it. I gave him a few minutes to settle down and helped another student. I walked back to his desk and offered again to help.
“I don’t know how to do this. I hate math,” he said quietly.
“You know, I remember feeling the same way about algebra,” I quietly shared with him. “I hated it.”
“But you know how to do it, you’re a teacher,” he told me.
“Yes I do, although it was very hard for me to learn at first. Then I discovered some tricks.”
“It was hard for you?” he asked.
“Definitely. I used to sit and cry about having to math homework when I was in school. Did you know I have a learning disability too?” I asked.
“You do? But you’re a teacher,” he said.
“Just because I have a learning disability doesn’t mean I can’t do things,” I responded, smiling slightly. “It just means I might have to learn it a different way, or it might just take me a little longer. It’s the same with you,” I encouraged. “Why don’t we try some of these problems, and I’ll show you some tricks.” He sat next to me and we worked through the problems together. He was much more positive and willing to work.
In that moment I was actually grateful for my learning disability. I was grateful to be able to relate to his frustration and to show him how I learned. I have had dozens of similar experiences. My students know that I don’t judge them when they need some extra help, because they know I understand what it’s like to struggle. God used my struggles in school to teach me perseverance, to keep trying when things got hard and to empathize with those who are “different.” If you had told the 12-year-old me as I sat at the kitchen table crying about math homework that one day I would be grateful I had struggled, I’d probably have rolled my eyes. Having worked with students with special needs for 15 years now, I can say I am grateful for my weakness. That weakness has become a strength I’ve used to help my students.
Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.
I am driving through the Northwoods of Wisconsin, talking to a friend, a man I know very well, on the phone. Tall, snow-covered pines line the ditches; gray overcast hovers. The man and I are catching up, chatting about our lives. The tone of his voice becomes shameful, reluctant. My gaze moves over the wide, open road ahead as I hear his story. His words come slowly as he admits that he is on a leave of absence from his job after he said a racial slur while in a casual conversation with his colleagues. He is not allowed to work or earn money; he is expected to apologize to every one of his co-workers personally. He is humbled, broken. And yet he remains surprised. “I don’t know why I said it … I’m not that kind of person …” I keep driving. I don’t know what to say.
I am a newly professed sister teaching at a high school on Chicago’s South Side with a mission to serve African-American boys. I am learning to listen. I listen to my students when they explain why they need an extension on their assignments, when one says he spent the whole night in the ER with his cousin who was shot as they played ball in the park. I listen to my students when they come to class without…
I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.
But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.
I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.
When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”
I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.
The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”
I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”
“This is different.”
“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”
“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”
“He’s the best.”
“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”
They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.
“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”
“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.
I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”
They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”
“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.
I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.
When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback — but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students — many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling — that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?
“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”
We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.
Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.
“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”
At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.
“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.
“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.
“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”
“Tell us another one!” a third student said.
To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love — why you are in love — with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.
But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.
So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
My stomach felt like an empty pit. There could not possibly have been anything left in the tank. I had already been on the toilet for 10 minutes, but I had not built up enough confidence to walk away. Diarrhea for reasons beyond our control is bad enough. This time it was, I admit, completely self-inflicted.
A few days earlier, I had started a bread-and-juice fast for the season of Lent. Three times a day, at normal meal times, I had a simple piece of bread (preferably multigrain, as my body begged for nutrients) and a glass of fruit juice. I was also drinking lots of water, and it was going straight through me. Fasting always sounds like a brilliant idea before… [This is the beginning of an essay recently published by America. Continue reading here.]
Originally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He now is studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)
Oh God, who desire not the death of sinners,
but their conversion,
mercifully hear our prayers
and in your kindness be pleased to bless these ashes,
which we intend to receive upon our heads,
that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes shall return to dust,
may, through a steadfast observance of Lent,
gain pardon for sins and newness of life
after the likeness of your Risen Son.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
(Prayer for Blessing and Distribution of Ashes)
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
dust, I am
we all are
a fragment of a larger whole
floating through the open air
only visible to the naked eye
when illumined by light
some days I am
certain I was once
a piece of His flesh
and now I am floating
trying to reunite
with my maker
my true home
most days I am
like a fragment
of an ignored
or crumb of
yet the grace
the dust of me,
of us all
is an offering
able to unite
to give life
may this true love
Praying with Fr. James’ Martin SJ’s Examen app recently, I heard the words, “Lent is drawing to a close. For Christians, that means not only is there some anticipation for the celebration of Easter, but also some inevitable disappointment about your Lenten spiritual practices …”
The words froze me still. And completely validated my experience. Are you saying, prayer podcast creators, that everyone else is just as awful at fasting as I am? Are you telling me no one succeeds in the spiritual life, that none of us are actually excellent at being disciplined?
My mind wandered into the pit of questions, momentarily distracting me from praying the Examen. Why do we work so hard to grow closer to God, to journey on the path of holiness, if we know that we will stumble? Why do we remain dedicated through the trials, even if our efforts become floppy and we mess up so much? Could the trick of Lent actually be that it doesn’t really matter what penance we do, but why we do it?
What if the actual point of Lenten penance is that it teaches us our desperate need for God?
I’ve been here before, much more in touch with the darkness inside of me at the end of Lent. I seem to repeat my patterns every Lenten cycle; I practically write every year about my failure to make it through.
This year, though, I don’t feel like a failure. I feel grateful to have gotten in touch with the Truth: I am a sinner, a woman who must be fully rely on God. Only with God’s grace am I able to offer my broken, half-hearted self and allow God to make it into something beautiful –something that can be used for God’s purposes.
I can have faith in God’s presence, God’s eagerness to help me grow and recover, again and again, from the darkness in me. I can have faith that God will find a way to use my weak and broken self, and make me more wholly into a woman made for God’s purposes. I learned a new Bible verse at the start of Lent, one that has been a comfort to carry me through: Trust in God’s faithful love forever. (Psalm 52:10)
Even when I fail, God remains faithful. This is what I can trust in, believe in, and rely on.
So, yes, it is inevitable that I stumble and fail, that I become disappointed with myself and my imperfections. But, this isn’t all bad. Each time I become disappointed in my efforts, I see the truth of who I am, I come to know the darkness within me. This causes me to turn to God, to know the power of God’s grace and faithfulness again and again, to open space for God to remake me, which God never seems to grow tired of doing.